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Shapes that speak volumes

December 22, 2004 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

People measure male attractiveness based on size rather than weight.

He may be tall and dark, but researchers in China suggest you check his height and volume to find out if he's handsome as well. Their study hints that body size matters more than weight when it comes to love at first sight.

Several body parameters have interested scientists in the past as potential gauges of good looks. One initial measure for male attractiveness involves the waist-to-hip ratio, which relates to the distribution of fat between the upper and lower body, and gives an overall indication of health. Another number that has received attention is the body mass index, or BMI, defined as the mass in kilograms divided by the square of height in metres.

But researchers now believe that the truest measure of a man's attractiveness involves taking his volume in cubic metres and dividing it by the square of his height. They call the measure volume-height index, or VHI. ( Click here to see how to measure your own VHI.)

Corporeal cues

Jintu Fan, a clothing scientist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, believed in the importance of the BMI, but doubted that it fully captures a person's physical appeal. "Viewers cannot estimate another person's weight by just viewing them," he says. "So I felt this may be a consequence, rather than a direct cue to body attractiveness."

He and his fellow researchers turned their attention to size, reasoning that it is easier for us to judge another person's volume than his or her weight.

The group used lasers to produce three-dimensional scans of 94 men (69 of them Chinese and the other 25 Caucasian) and then calculated their VHIs from the measurements.

In the next step, Fan and his colleagues asked 43 male and female volunteers to rate how attractive they found each of the three-dimensional body images on a scale of one to nine, and then compared these ratings with various parameters including waist-to-hip ratio, BMI and VHI. They found that VHI was the best at predicting how attractively a body would be rated1.

Sexy geometry

The average VHI of the males in the sample group was just over 20 litres per square metre. But the researchers found that female viewers preferred slimmer body types, with an optimum VHI of around 17.5 litres per square metre, whereas males appreciated a slightly beefier 18 litres per square metre the most.

All the viewers were from Hong Kong and were of Chinese origin, however, so the most attractive body type might be different for other societies or ethnic groups.

In a previous experiment2, Fan and his team studied women's measurements, and found that both sexes were in agreement about the most attractive body shape. The most attractive VHI for females is around 14, he says.

So why does VHI provide a better prediction of physical appeal than body mass index? Fan suggests that a person's volume may be a better indicator of their fitness level than their body weight. "For example, a heavy person with a solid muscular body is fit, although he may have a relatively high BMI."


  1. Fan J., et al. Proc. R. Soc.Lond. B, doi:10.1098.rspb.2004.2922 (2004).
  2. Fan J., et al. Proc. R. Soc.Lond. B, B271. 347 - 352 (2004).

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